WASHINGTON — As the threat from Sunni militants in western Iraq escalated last month, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
But Iraq’s appeals for military assistance have been rebuffed so far by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Barack Obama has insisted was closed when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.
The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also cast a spotlight on the limits the White House has imposed on the use of U.S. power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined to comment on Mr. Maliki’s requests and the administration’s response, saying in a statement, “We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions, but the government of Iraq has made clear that they welcome our support” in combating the Islamic extremists.
The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears that terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari last year floated the idea that U.S.-operated, armed Predator or Reaper drones might be used to respond to the expanding militant network in Iraq. U.S. officials dismissed that suggestion at the time, saying the request had not come from Mr. Maliki.
By March, however, U.S. experts who visited Baghdad were being told that Iraq’s top leaders were hoping that U.S. air power could be used to strike the militants’ staging and training areas inside Iraq, and help Iraq’s beleaguered forces stop them from crossing into Iraq from Syria.
“Iraqi officials at the highest level said they had requested manned and unmanned U.S. airstrikes” against camps of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the Jazira desert, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and who visited Baghdad in early March.
As the Sunni insurgents have grown in strength those requests have persisted.
In a May 11 meeting with U.S. diplomats and Gen. Lloyd Austin III, head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, Mr. Maliki said he would like the United States to provide Iraq with the ability to operate drones. But if the United States was unwilling to do that, Mr. Maliki indicated that he was prepared to allow the United States to carry out strikes using warplanes or drones. In a May 16 phone call with Vice President Joe Biden, Mr. Maliki again suggested that the United States consider using U.S. air power. A written request repeating that point was submitted soon afterward, officials said.
Some experts say such U.S. military action could be helpful, but only if Mr. Maliki takes steps to make his government more inclusive.
“U.S. military support for Iraq could have a positive effect, but only if it is conditioned on Maliki changing his behavior within Iraq’s political system,” Mr. Pollack said. “He has to bring the Sunni community back in, agree to limits on his executive authority and agree to reform Iraqi security forces to make them more professional and competent.”
But so far, the administration has signaled that it not interested in such a direct U.S. military role. “Ultimately, this is for the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government to deal with,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday.
The deteriorating situation in Iraq is not what the Obama administration expected when it withdrew the last U.S. troops from there in 2011. In a March 2012 speech, Antony Blinken, who is Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”
From the start, experts have stressed that the conflict in Iraq is as much political as military. Mr. Maliki’s failure to include leading Sunnis in his government has heightened the sectarian divisions in Iraq.
But U.S. officials also say militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant represent a formidable military threat, one that Iraq’s security forces, which lack an effective air force, have been hard pressed to handle on their own. ISIL grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq, the militant group that U.S. forces fought during their war there. But while the capabilities of the militants have grown, the Iraq’s military’s effectiveness has diminished. Adding to that challenge is the fact that the group controls territory on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, and the Iraq and Syria conflicts have been feeding each other.
Said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former U.N. envoy to the collapsed Syria peace talks: “The region is in trouble, starting with Iraq. When I went to Baghdad in December, I was told that for every 100 operations ISIL did in Syria, it did 1,000 in Iraq.”
Critics say the latest developments show the weakness in an administration strategy designed to shore up Iraqi forces and to combat a growing Islamic militancy in Syria that officials say poses an increasing counterterrorism threat to the United States.
In a speech Wednesday, Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said the U.S. effort to buttress Iraq’s forces has been effective. “The United States has been fast to provide necessary support for the people and government of Iraq,” she said at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
The United States has provided a $14 billion foreign military aid package to Iraq that includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and M-16 rifles. It has rushed hundreds of Hellfire missiles as well as ScanEagle reconnaissance drones.
A second round of counterterrorism training between U.S. Special Operations commandos and Iraqi troops started in Jordan this week.
At least two F-16s are set to arrive in Iraq by September, and six Apaches will be leased for training later this year, Iraqi and Pentagon officials said.
But some former generals who served in Iraq said a greater effort was needed. Retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who oversaw Iraqi army training during the surge, summed it up this way: “We should fly some of our manned and unmanned aircraft and put advisers into Iraq that can help the Iraqi army plan and execute a proper defense, then help them transition to a counter offensive.”syria - United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - District of Columbia - U.S. Department of Defense - U.S. National Security Council - Office of the President of the United States - Iraq - Joe Biden - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - Lakhdar Brahimi - Iraqi armed forces - Hoshyar Mahmud Zebari